Return of the rickshaw
REPORTAGE: Vietnam - Rising Dragon, By Bill Hayton, Yale University Press, 253pp. £20
VIETNAM IS a nation of young people – more than half the population is under 26. These junior comrades care little for the past. As a result, the dusty Museum of the Vietnamese Revolution in Hanoi is rarely busy. Alone in one of its echoing halls a few years ago, I remember looking at a faded picture of a bearded Frenchman reclining in a rickshaw pulled by a diminutive old man. The crude caption described the pair as “the evil imperialist and the oppressed slave”. The human rickshaw was seen as the ultimate symbol of colonial exploitation, and was immediately banned when Ho Chi Minh seized power. Now, as Bill Hayton reports in this fascinating primer on modern Vietnam, it is back. At the Bao Son (Paradise) theme park, owned by the family of a Communist Party leader, the rich and privileged Vietnamese elite queue up for a ride through a Disney-style recreation of the streets old Hanoi.
In the unified Socialist Republic of Vietnam’s first decade, the Communist Party’s rule was absolute. Then in 1986, with food output falling and inflation at almost 500 per cent, central planning was abandoned and free trade was introduced. Just in time. As revolution swept across eastern Europe, the Party bosses in Hanoi could assure their comrades that Vietnam was evolving into a modern, successful state. Doi moiwas what the new policy was called, literally “change to something new”, and it has underpinned almost every aspect of Vietnamese life since.
But doi moihas had a malevolent impact on life in the country. Millions have abandoned the land for the cities, where wages are on average five times higher; shanty towns have grown up to accommodate these migrants, yet the authorities think nothing of sweeping them away when the land is needed for commercial use. Corruption is rife, but so often linked to senior Party figures that it is rarely investigated. Natural resources have been vastly over-exploited. Ha Long Bay, where 2,000 limestone towers erupt spectacularly from the sea, is slowly dying. Gaudy hotels and resorts line the coast, the water dangerously polluted by human effluent and coal dust.
Doi moihas also led to a reassessment of the Vietnam War. It’s not so good to celebrate communist David beating capitalist Goliath when you need Goliath to be your friend. In order to join the World Trade Organisation, and benefit from billions of dollars of aid, Vietnam needed to re-establish relations with America. The country had to be pragmatic, compromises had to be made.
Missing soldiers were a priority for Washington, but Hanoi was not allowed to raise the fatal consequences of Agent Orange. As Hayton writes, Vietnamese veterans “find themselves trapped in voiceless rage. They know why they fought, they know what they and their fellows suffered . . . but they are banned from expressing any of it in public because the Party has decided the country needs the support and resources of the United States”.
This is a cleverly pitched book, one that will appeal equally to a businessman or investor seeking a briefing on Vietnam, an old Asia hand, or an inquisitive backpacker.
After reading it one is left with a sense of awe at how the Communist Party has retained such complete power over the dynamic, driven Vietnamese population. Yes, it has been forced to introduce very limited local democracy, it has had to impose an internet firewall to stop dissidents talking to each other, and it has been forced to import sinister “internal security equipment” from Belarus. But with its steely control over almost every aspect of Vietnamese life, it looks like the Party is pretty secure for now. “Uncle” Ho Chi Minh’s stuffed body seems set to be on display in its Hanoi mausoleum for some time yet.
Petroc Trelawny is a presenter for BBC Radio Three who has travelled extensively in Indochina